Rob Von Boltog waved friends and family goodbye as they prepared to fly from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to Kuala Lumpur en route to Indonesia, hours after a missile downed an earlier flight on a similar route.
In all, 298 people died in the strike that knocked the Boeing Co. 777 on flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur from the sky within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the Russian border yesterday. The bulk of the passengers -- 189 -- were from the Netherlands, including a Dutch senator, who died with his wife and daughter, and a University of Amsterdam academic, who fought to bring cheaper AIDS drugs to Africa.
“I’m relieved that my friends didn’t take a flight half a day earlier,” the 65-year-old consultant from the Hague said. “They should shut down the airspace above the area.”
Across the Netherlands, sadness is beginning to turn to anger as the nation seeks answers to what lay behind the worst aviation disaster to hit the country since more than 200 Dutch tourists died in a collision in Gran Canaria in 1977. As the country’s red, white and blue flag flew at half-mast around Amsterdam’s canals, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said today he’ll leave no stone unturned to catch the culprits.
“If this proves to be an attack, then I will personally see the perpetrators will be tracked down and get the punishment they deserve,” Rutte told reporters. “We owe that to the innocent victims and their relatives.”
Among the victims was Joep Lange, infectious diseases professor at the University of Amsterdam, who was traveling to a conference in Melbourne. He was involved in the creation of the first medical insurance system in Africa, according to the university’s website.
“He was shocked to see how, from 1996 onwards, expensive HIV therapies became available to patients in rich countries, but not in Africa,” according to the university’s website. “He made it his mission to change this and to put an end to the gross inequality in access to life-saving medication.”
Labor Party senator Willem Witteveen, his wife, Lidwien, and daughter, Marit, were also killed in the crash. The founding dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Tilburg University, he rejoined the Senate last year, acting as a spokesman for security and justice, after first serving between 1999 and 2007. He is survived by a son, brother and his parents.
“He was a thought leader for the party, and most of all an incredibly nice man and a dear colleague,” said Diederik Samsom, Labor Party leader, in a radio interview with NOS. “You can only have nightmares from the idea of what may have happened in that plane.”
The disaster dominated the news in the country of almost 17 million people. “298 Deaths,” De Telegraaf, the biggest Dutch paper, says in black capital letters on its front page. “Horrible Murder,” the subhead says.
“In Shock,” Algemeen Dagblad says, printed over a picture of a woman and bespectacled man with a gold cross necklace, covering his mouth with his hand in horror.
It wasn’t just the Dutch who suffered loss. Newcastle United, a soccer-team from the North-East of England, said two fans, John Alder and Liam Sweeney, died on the flight. The pair were traveling to support the team on its pre-season tour in New Zealand.
Alder was nicknamed the Undertaker for the suits that he wore to games and “barely” missed a Newcastle game in 50 years, while Sweeney acted as a steward on supporters’ buses for away games, the club said on its website.
Philomena Tiernan, an Australian nun with Irish roots, died in the crash, as she traveled to Malaysia after a retreat in Paris.
“It’s been a lifetime ambition of Phil’s to go to this source of her spirituality,” Father Tony Doherty told state broadcaster RTE. “She’d traveled from Paris to Amsterdam to get this plane and, well, the rest is tragedy, I guess.”
With the families of the dead mostly not yet speaking to the media, much of the coverage focused on Cor Pan, whose Facebook page listed his home as the Dutch town of Volendam. Media reported that Pan was on the flight and had posted a photo of the plane as he was boarding yesterday, adding the line: “in case it disappears, this is how it looks” referring to the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flight which disappeared without trace in March.
Celebrations around the finish of the Four Days Marches, which involves walkers traipsing 25 miles every day for four days, in Nijmegen in the east of the Netherlands will be toned down, with planned music canceled.
The Dutch soccer association asked clubs to keep flags at half-mast this weekend, wear black armbands during matches and respect a minute of silence before games.
While it remains unclear who is responsible, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other for the downing of the jet yesterday, Dutch anger is focusing on President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among pro-Russian militants discussing a missile strike.
“Hopefully Putin will fall down from his throne and the world can get a better place!” Irene Hoofs, who says she lives in Singapore and was born in Amsterdam, posted on her Twitter feed. “Angry that these people make our world so dangerous.”
Putin, who has repeatedly denied Russian involvement in the fighting in Ukraine, said the government in Kiev bore responsibility because the crash wouldn’t have occurred without the current strife with separatists battling regular forces in two eastern regions of the country.
Dutch-Russian trade relations trace back for centuries. Last year, King Willem Alexander visited Putin in the Kremlin. The King and Rutte attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which was shunned by other government leaders.
Others are questioning the plane’s route. Flight 17 was at about 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), taking a route over eastern Ukraine when it came down. While several other carriers avoided that path, the flight was at an altitude cleared for commercial traffic, according to navigation agency Eurocontrol.
Back at Schiphol Airport, Von Boltog reflects as he considers the flight he is scheduled to take to Indonesia on Wednesday.
“Of course, I’m more worried,” he said.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to remove reference to the Hague as the capital of the Netherlands.)